The career path of successful footballers tend to follow a similar pattern, with many of the game’s leading players making their first-team debuts in their teens, peaking in their 20s and, once they enter their 30s, planning for life after hanging up their boots. For some a stab at coaching will beckon, for others, the lure of business or the media might prove too strong.

However, there are always those who remain determined to break the mould and whose immense talent ensures that age is no obstacle to staying at the top of the game. Ryan Giggs, Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon are just three names that leap to mind, while there is now another member of this elite group: Rafa Marquez.

Now 35 and fresh from winning consecutive Mexican titles with Leon and captaining El Tri at a record fourth FIFA World Cup™, far from deciding to call it at day Marquez has instead opted to return to European football – where he enjoyed success with Monaco and particularly Barcelona. Having signed on the dotted line for Serie A outfit Hellas Verona, Marquez caught up with FIFA.com for an exclusive interview.

A dream send-off
In a fitting twist of fate, Marquez’s first game back on European soil was not with his new club but with Leon, the gifted defender able to make his farewell appearance on the best possible stage: Camp Nou. There in pre-season action Leon tackled Barça, a team with whom El Kaiser de Michoacán won no fewer than 12 trophies – including two UEFA Champions Leagues and the FIFA Club World Cup.

“It was really emotional,” explained Marquez. “I was feeling very torn: on the one hand I was sad to be leaving my club, on the other hand I was happy to be back at Barcelona, where I never thought I’d play again. I couldn’t have had a better setting on which to start this new stage of my career: it felt incredible.”

And after fulfilling one ambition of gracing the Camp Nou turf one last time, Marquez’s Italian challenge is the realisation of another for the veteran centre-back – a long-held dream of tasting life in calcio. Though time had looked to be against him, the player can now rest easy knowing he will finally get the chance to follow in the footsteps of Serie A defensive icons such as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi or Alessandro Nesta.

“I’m really happy to be coming back to Europe and even more so seeing as I’ll be playing in Italy, a country where I’ve always wanted to play and with such a competitive league,” said Marquez, visibly enthused. “This is a huge opportunity at an age when you don’t get many like this, so the least I can do is take full advantage of it.”

On arriving in Verona, Marquez was given a hearty welcome by hundreds of Hellas fans, supporters who will surely be hoping the vastly experienced Mexico No4 can bring all his leadership and skill to bear for the newly-promoted club.

“I’m acutely aware that we’re talking about the very top level of the European game,” said Marquez, clearly not taking anything for granted. “Italian football is very competitive and I’ll need time to adapt my game. I know that my opponents are going to stretch me to the very limit. It would be a serious error to think it’s going to be easy.”

Indeed, it is that steely determination that has helped Marquez win silverware throughout his club career, including the French, Spanish and Mexican championships and the aforementioned European and world club crowns.

But how high can El Kaiser aim with a relatively modest outfit in Hellas? “When I joined Leon we were a newly-promoted team too. Nobody expected much from us and we were crowned champions twice in a row. Why not achieve something big again here? It’s a similar challenge.”

Confident words from a man accustomed to accruing winners’ medals and who, after shining once more for El Tri at Brazil 2014, is not ready to close the door on the national team yet either. “As I’ve already said, as long as I’m playing well I’ll be ready to help Mexico. Every time they call, I’ll come running."